This Man was Martin Luther King Jr.’s Inspiration

This Man was Martin Luther King Jr.’s Inspiration

Matthew Weber - April 28, 2017

It isn’t a secret that Martin Luther King Jr did not invent the idea of nonviolent protests, just like Malcolm X didn’t hold patent to the idea of violent protests. During the early and middle 20th century, the United States was still reeling from the ideals that had been fought over during the American Civil War.

Even though slavery ended with the ratification of the 13th amendment, discrimination of those freemen did not. Even today, discrimination is something that many in the U.S. have to deal with on a daily basis.

Bayard Rustin is a name that most people don’t know, yet he played as much a role in the civil rights movement as either Dr. King or Malcolm X. In fact, Rustin advised King on many different occasions before King was assassinated. The question is, why is he not so well-known?

This Man was Martin Luther King Jr.’s Inspiration
Bayard Rustin. Buzzfeed

Bayard Rustin was born March 17 1912, in Pennsylvania. He was highly educated with degrees in education from the City College of New York and Cheyney State Teachers College. Even as he went through his schooling, he took part in many laws that were discriminatory against African-Americans. He was expelled, for instance, from Wilberforce University in 1936 for organizing a strike meant to protest discrimination.

After university, he moved to Harlem, where he took part and organized many different protests and organizations. Interestingly, he also joined the Religious Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers, a group the espoused non-violent teachings.

Throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, Bayard Rustin organized protests, marches, and speeches where he railed against the discrimination shown to African-Americans throughout the country.

Another thing he is known for, is his stance on gay rights. As a gay black man during the early parts of the 20th century, it is hard to say what he faced the most discrimination in his life for. It is likely that it was his homosexuality, as at that time it was actually illegal in many parts of the country to be gay. In 1953 he was arrested for a short time for homosexual activity.

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This Man was Martin Luther King Jr.’s Inspiration
Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King Jr/Advocate

Mentor and Partner

Of the two, Martin Luther King Jr. is by far the most well-known. Whether this is because of King’s assassination, his highly publicized speeches, or continued discrimination because of Rustin’s homosexuality, it is unknown. What is known is that Rustin played a large role in the organization that brought King’s success.

Rustin was a huge player in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, and helped King organize the marches that he was famous for, and helped set up the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that King headed and was part of what made Martin Luther King Jr. a success.

Bayard Rustin preached non-violence, which he learned from observing Mahatma Gandhi. It is also known that he was a major influence on Martin Luther King Jr. in this area.

Throughout his life, Rustin was a key leader in well over two dozen organizations that were founded to fight discrimination. He was an economic leader in that he helped young black people reach gainful employment, and he fought for equal pay and equal rights.

This Man was Martin Luther King Jr.’s Inspiration
Bayard Rustin in 1964. Wikipedia

After King’s assassination, and as the nation moved towards more equal treatment for African Americans, Bayard Rustin refocused on Gay Rights, which he had fought for his entire life. In the 1980s he supported Gay Rights bills that passed through the New York State Legislature. His speech “The New Niggers Are Gays,” was perhaps prophetic of changes that the US is going through today in terms of Gay Rights.

He said in 1986: “Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new “niggers” are gays…. It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change….”

While many historians claim that Rustin is the “Father of Gay Rights” he himself disagreed with that sentiment, stating that he was much more focused on rights for African-Americans in his youth, and only “came out of the closet” because he was forced to do so in the 1950s.

We wouldn’t know what Martin Luther King Jr.’s views are on the Gay Rights Movement. Only one quote exists about gay rights from King and that came in 1958 in the magazine Ebony where he called it a “problem”.

In the end Bayard Rustin is a central figure in American history, even if he isn’t well-known in the mainstream. He is overshadowed by Martin Luther King Jr., but he isn’t forgotten. Both President Ronald Reagan and President Barack Obama praised Rustin during their times in office. Rustin was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.

Rustin died in 1987 of natural causes. He continued to fight for equality to his dying day. Bayard Rustin once wrote about his own life, saying “The principal factors which influenced my life are 1) nonviolent tactics; 2) constitutional means; 3) democratic procedures; 4) respect for human personality; 5) a belief that all people are one.”